What’s it all about?

It’s been a long time since anyone stopped me during one of my long ambles around the campus (for that matter, it’s been a while since I ambled around the campus–or any campus) to ask me, in a polite but insistent manner, what Gravity’s Rainbow is “about”.  The world has moved on to other questions; such is the way of all things.

And not only other questions, but other ways of answering questions.  It’s no longer hip to be distant and aloof; today public blogs are all the rage.  I’ve stayed away from blogging about my personal life in any deep manner because I’d much rather have a conversation with someone than pontificate to an audience that is, from what I can tell, either largely anonymous and passive, or completely absent.  I don’t usually like to pontificate, but when I do I like to have the feeling that someone is listening, and possibly taking notes, perhaps even weighing my words carefully in the hope that they will give them some insight into topics relevant to their attempts to pander to the whims and prejudices of the graders of their term papers.

But I can change–and I have.

If you were to ask me–and even if you haven’t, which is closer to the truth–what Gravity’s Rainbow is about, here’s what I would tell you.

The novel begins in London, at a time near the end of the second world war.  V2 rockets are raining down on the city at irregular intervals.  These weapons are terrifying because they arrive almost without warning (only a few minutes between their launch in Holland and impact in London) and their apparently arbitrary pattern of impact.  People are very interested to know where the rockets are going to strike next; it’s a simple Poisson distribution, created by the accumulation of errors in the guidance system and dynamics of each rocket, but that’s not very comforting or informative.

So, perhaps you could say that this book is about the tendency of people to look at random distributions and see patterns that arguably exist only in their minds–conspiracies, the hand of the divine, things of that nature.  But where would the fun be in that?  There are already books about that.  They’re dull and boring.  A dose of real conspiracy–and perhaps real divine intervention as well–make things more fun.  Besides, we have eight hundred pages to go, and it’s going to be tedious if it’s all about psychology and conditional probability.

Tyrone Slothrop is an American soldier attached to an English unit based in London.  I forget exactly why, or what he’s supposed to be doing.  It doesn’t really matter, except for the detail that whatever it is, it seems to provide him with plenty of free time, which he spends doing touristy things; traveling around London, seeing points of interest, and meeting various people.  He keeps a map of London pinned to the wall of his office, and on this map he marks places that he feels are notable for whatever arbitrary reason he chooses.

To the untrained eye, his map looks random.  Fortunately for the plot, there are plenty of trained eyes available, and therefore it is eventually noted–not by Tyrone, who is oblivious to all of this–that the pattern of markings on Tyrone’s map is nearly identical to the pattern of markings on the maps of the people who are keeping track of the impact points of the V2 rockets.  There is one important difference, however, and it is this what attracts attention: Tyrone updates his maps before the rockets hit.  It’s not a map of where the rockets have fallen; it’s a map of where the rockets shall fall.

How Tyrone accomplishes this trick is never made entirely clear, but there are hints and theories.  When Tyrone was an infant, he was subjected to a series of Pavlovian experiments as part of a research study whose techniques and goals are never provided in any useful detail.  The basic structure of Pavlov’s conditional experiments is simple and designed to show that the mind can form connections between stimuli with indirect relations, and these connections could continue long after the relationships were broken.  For example, if dogs hear a bell before they receive their food, then they will learn to begin to salivate when they hear the ringing of the bell, and this will occur when they hear the bell whether or not food arrives afterward.

When performing these experiments on people, is only fair to break these relationships after the experiment is over; to “untrain” the subject.  Infant Tyrone was given conditioning to extinguish the response, but perhaps it was a bit too extinguished, or the untraining went awry.  In any case, Tyrone now seems to start salivating, so to speak, before the bell.

Plus there’s a bunch of other stuff with characters and plot and whatnot; if you can’t find something in this novel that you can prattle on about for a few blue books, perhaps the problem is with you, not the book.

Be that as it may, this is what I used to tell people who asked me what the book was about.  I ran into one of those people again a few years later, and he told me that I’d misled him somewhat.

“That’s sort of where the plot begins,” he began.  “But then it goes all over the place, introducing all sorts of other plots and characters, while in the background that plot continues,” he continued.

“Yes,” I agreed.  “I acknowledge that my sketch of the plot lacked detail,” I summarized, “but what would you say the book is about?”

He shrugged, smiled, and then turned and walked away.



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